MINNEAPOLIS — Great news: Two years after the release of his “Venison,” author Jon Wipfli’s latest work is now in bookstores.
“Fish: Recipes and Techniques for Freshwater Fish” (Harvard Common Press, $25) nimbly combines Wipfli’s passion for fishing with his cooking expertise, skills acquired while working in the kitchens of top New York City and Twin Cities restaurants.
Wipfli, chef/owner of Animales Barbeque Co. in northeast Minneapolis, fashions imaginative recipes that extend trout, sturgeon, salmon, walleye and other familiar species far beyond the basic pan-fried shore lunch. (The recipes and helpful step-by-step techniques are vividly captured by photographer Colleen Eversman, a Twin Citian now working in San Francisco.)
In a recent phone conversation, Wipfli discussed his obsession with muskie fishing, his fascination with salt domes and his retail source for freshwater fish.
Q: When did you start fishing?
A: I grew up fishing. We fished the way everyone fishes in Minnesota and Wisconsin, catching bluegills, crappies and walleyes, and a little bit of bass fishing. As I got older I started doing stream fly fishing in Wisconsin, and that was a lot of fun. Then I moved to Montana, where I started doing quite a bit of fly fishing. After living in Oregon and New York, I came back here. That’s when I got into muskie fishing in Wisconsin, and that’s primarily what I do now.
Q: Fishing for muskies, and following a catch-and-release protocol, doesn’t seem like a natural avocation for a cook. What drew you to muskies?
A: I love summer muskie fishing. There’s nothing better in the whole world. When I first started, I thought, ‘This is stupid; we’re not even keeping the fish.’ But a friend said, ‘Wait until you catch your first one.’ He was right. It was a 46-inch muskie, in northern Wisconsin. My pole broke. It’s an addiction now. It’s not even a question of what we’re going to do. We’re going to fish for muskies.
Q: Are you an ice fisherman?
A: Dude, I hate ice fishing. It’s so cold. I just do it because my friends do it, and it’s a reason to get outside and do something. But if I had my choice, I wouldn’t be sitting on a plastic bucket in 10 degrees. You do get to catch fish and drink beer. And fish do taste a little better when they’re coming out of ice-cold water.
Q: There’s a fair amount of campfire cooking in the book. Why do you like to cook over fire?
A: The whole thing comes down to flavor, and being outside, doing something outside. When you catch something that you want to cook, and you have the opportunity to sit outside at a campfire that’s probably already going, you’re going to get the best flavor and the best overall experience.
Q: Are there any tools that you have to have when you’re cooking over an open fire, or do you improvise?
A: You look around and take whatever is near and make it work. Anyone can do it. It might take a bit of practice. But a lot of the best meals that we have aren’t the ones that are scripted out. They’re the ones where you look around and do whatever you can by putting together the ingredients and the equipment that you have. You learn a little bit about cooking every time you do that. You might screw it up sometimes, but most of the time it turns out.
Q: What’s a common mistake that cooks make with freshwater fish?
A: For any fish, it’s keeping it as fresh as possible, whether it’s gutting it and cleaning it as soon as possible, or freezing it properly. Fish doesn’t sit well at room temperature for a long time. If you’re camping, keep the fish alive in colder water, then gut and clean them as a group, working as rapidly as possible, and then cook.
Q: For cooks who don’t fish, where do you recommend they purchase the fish that you highlight in the book?
A: The Fish Guys always have high-quality Canadian walleye on hand. I’ve special-ordered Canadian crappies from them a couple of times, and perch, even bluegill.
Q: In the book, you wrote, “If I was able to cook everything under a giant dome of salt, I’m pretty sure that’d be the only way I’d cook.” Why?
A: It’s a fun process. First of all, it’s visually entertaining. But more than that, when you’re cooking like that, you’re basically encapsulating protein in a big, moist environment, and using the fish’s natural qualities to lightly steam itself. You crack it open and you wipe away the salt. The meat falls off the bone, and it’s the perfect way to cook a piece of fish.
Q: You mention a number of Twin Cities chefs in the book, including Yia Vang of Union Hmong Kitchen and Paul Berglund, your former boss at the Bachelor Farmer. Is cooking a collaborative process for you?
A: These guys have been such influences in my life, as far as cooking goes, so I like to give credit where credit is due. They also bring flavors to the table that I wouldn’t think of, it’s just not in my background.
Q: There are 50 recipes in the book, and they really run the gamut. Is it easy for you to create and write recipes?
A: Making recipes is incredibly easy; so is testing them. When it comes to the writing, I shouldn’t say “hate,” but it doesn’t come naturally. I really dislike having exact amounts — baking is different — although I understand why it’s necessary. You don’t want people to follow recipes verbatim. You want them to look at the ingredients, which can have varying characteristics, and make adjustments accordingly. That’s why I talk in the book about how recipes should be used as a guideline, rather than an exact formula.
Q: Will we be seeing walleye, or trout, or catfish on the menu at Animales?
A: We don’t put any fish in the smokers. It’s subtle, but they taint it. If we ever expand and add separate smokers, we’ll do it for sure.
Q: OK, you’ve written a venison cookbook, and a freshwater fish cookbook. What’s the next edible creature that’s going to capture your attention?
A: We’ve already started — it’s a long road — but we’re moving towards barbecue.
“I encourage you to use your imagination,” writes Jon Wipfli in “Fish.” “It can make its way into omelets, top bagels or eggs Benedict, or be plainly sliced onto a charcuterie platter. It’s an extremely versatile ingredient. You can also use this same process with other fish, such as trout or bass.”
Salt, Sugar and Dill-Cured Salmon
- 1 cup kosher salt
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 bunches fresh dill, roughly chopped
- 2 (24-ounce) salmon fillets, bones removed as needed
In a small bowl, stir together the salt and sugar until blended.
Sprinkle the bottom of a rectangular glass baking dish with a layer of the salt-sugar mixture and a layer of dill. Lightly season the skin side of 1 salmon fillet with the salt-sugar mixture and place it, skin side down, in the baking dish. Aggressively season the flesh side of that fillet with the salt-sugar mixture and spread a handful of dill over the fish.
Aggressively season the flesh side of the second fillet and place it on top of the fillet so that flesh is resting on flesh. Aggressively season the skin side of the top of the exposed salmon with the remaining salt-sugar mixture and spread the remaining dill over the top.
Cover the salmon with plastic wrap and place some weights (such as bricks or a couple of tomato cans resting on a sheet of parchment paper) on it, pressing the salmon down evenly. Refrigerate. Flip the fish every 12 hours and drain the juices collected each time it’s flipped. Do this 4 times over a curing period of 48 hours.
After 48 hours, wipe away any excess salt-sugar mixture with a damp cloth, and the salmon is ready to eat. When you’re ready to serve, remove the skin.
Serves 10 to 12 when used with other recipes.